Thursday, June 15, 2006

No Defense for Jesse Crain

Jesse Crain is having a miserable season. Last season was fantastic by any measure. This year things have changed and his ERA has more than doubled. Somehow he is now pitching horribly. What has changed? Did he suddenly lose control? Are his homeruns allowed up? Did he somehow lose his strikeout pitch? Something he is doing is wrong and he needs to fix it, right? Wrong.

In fact this year he is actually pitching better than last year. His walks are down. He is striking out nearly 3 times as many batters and while he has allowed a higher homerun percentage it is only up a little from last year. So what is the difference from last year?

The difference, as with most Twins pitchers this year, is the defense behind him. Last year he allowed a Batting Average of Balls in Play (BAPIP) of .204 and this year it is .412.

What does this mean? It means those balls that are hit that are not homeruns are dropping for more hits than last year. This is mostly attributed to defense and luck.

BAPIP is a newer stat that has not gained wide acceptance yet in the baseball community. But it is a good stat to see how much bad luck a pitcher has had and how bad his defense has played behind him. In its simplest form it is (H-HR)/(AB-K-HR). The premise is that a pitcher controls the strikeouts, walks and homeruns he allows while all the other balls in play are controlled by the defense and luck.

This seems hard to believe but it has been tested and the best proof is that from year to year a pitcher’s K, BB and HR rate are fairly consistent but his BAPIP is rarely consistent. This does not mean that a pitcher has no effect of balls in play but that he actually has a much smaller amount of control than previously believed. The one exception is knuckle ball pitchers.

The Twins are on a record pace to have one of the worst BAPIP of all time. The flip side of BAPIP is Defense Efficiency Rating (DER). Generally, if a pitcher has a .300 BAPIP the DER of the team playing behind him is .700. This means that they turn a batted ball into an out on 70% of balls in play. It is kind of like a zone rating of the whole team.

The league average of BAPIP is generally around .290. For the Twins this year it is .343, last in the majors. That is a lot of extra hits allowed by the defense. The league leaders are the Tigers with a BAPIP of .277. Groundball pitchers tend to have a higher BAPIP, than flyball pitchers. But they also tend to have less homeruns than flyballers.

Now to look at Jesse Crain, the Twins defense has failed him more than any other pitcher. The DER of the team behind him is .588. That means that nearly 40% of the balls that Crain can’t control are now hits. Last year it was only 20%. That is quite a difference. This probably has a lot to do with his groundball percentage rising sharply and the Twins infield defense making a dramatic decline.

Crain has actually improved on the things he can control over last year. His strikeouts are way up, which means he is allowing less balls in play. Could you imagine how bad his season would be if had the same K rate as last year? His walks are down a fair amount and only his homerun rate has risen slightly. Again he is pitching much better than last year and I think he will only improve his ERA from this point on.

I think this because many of the causes of the bad defense are now getting less playing time. Batista had the worst Zone rating (ZR) of any everyday 3rd baseman. And was the worst by a lot. Castro has the 2nd worse ZR of any starting shortstop, but he is only .002 ahead of the worst shortstop.

The replacements for 3rd and Short will be better and improve the pitching of not just Crain but of the entire staff.

Castillo is last in ZR at 2nd. I think he is better than this but he may continue to struggle. It is my theory that it has more to do with his nagging leg injury than with anything else. Morneau has one of the best ZR of any starting 1st baseman. He is improving and not as bad as we all thought he would be.

The outlook for the rest of the season looks better for the pitching staff. With an improved defense the Twins should improve dramatically. I don’t think it will be enough to make the playoffs though. It is too bad that the recent changes were not made sooner.


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